Some mummies were wrapped with a portrait covering their face. Historians mostly agree that each portrait represented that particular person, but the logistics behind the practice raises some questions. Did people pose for their mummy portrait while they were still alive? How would that work for unexpected deaths, such as those of children? By creating a facial reconstruction from a CT scan of a mummy of a young child, pathologists and radiologists have now been able to confirm that at least some mummy portraits were most likely painted postmortem.
During the Graeco-Roman period, from 332 BC until around 400 AD, a custom of certain Ancient Egyptian burials was to place a portrait on the mummy’s head. Archeologists have found many of these portraits, and they were all different, suggesting that they represented the person inside the wrappings. That has been further confirmed by doing facial reconstructions for some mummies, but historians haven’t fully agreed on whether these paintings were created during the person’s life, or after their death.
Considering the detail in the portraits if would make sense if they had been painted while the person was still alive. That could also explain why it appeared as if some of the paintings had been cut to size to properly fit the wrappings: whoever made the painting seemed to have had no insight in the exact dimensions of the mummy.
But something didn’t add up. The portraits showed people of all ages. Does that mean that children already had mummy portraits done, which were updated over the years just in case they died? This didn’t seem likely, because such regular childhood portrait sittings would have been documented somewhere. Historians would know about it, and they didn’t.
If Ancient Egyptian children didn’t habitually sit for their portrait, then that suggested that the paintings found with child mummies would either not resemble them (if the painter had never seen them), or have been painted after the child had died.
However, most of the facial reconstructions had been done on adult mummies. So, to get more information on younger mummies, researchers in Germany recently did a facial reconstruction of a mummy of a child, part of the collection of the Staatliches Museum Ägyptischer Kunst in Munich.
To find out if the embalmed body was that of child in the portrait, the researchers put the entire mummy into a CT scanner to create a three-dimensional scan. They then handed the scan data over to a 3D artist who created a digital reconstruction of the face.
To avoid any bias, the 3D artist had not seen the mummy painting before starting work on the reconstruction. But although skull shape can tell an artist the shape of the face, it doesn’t hold any information about hair color, hair style and eye color. Usually, the reconstruction artist will have to make their own decisions about what the eyes and hair look like. In this case, they got a little help. When they reached that part of the reconstruction process (after the face shape was already determined), the researchers told the artist to add brown eyes and brown curly hair, with two small braids. With a similar hairstyle and eye color as the painting, this made it easier to directly compare the two faces.
The resemblance was striking, and seemed to suggest that the portrait really showed the face of the little boy buried inside. The only notable difference was that the child in the portrait appears to be several years older than the face from the reconstruction, but the researchers believe that this is due to the style of painting at the time, which made children look older.
Despite the age difference, the resemblance was convincing enough that this study further confirms that portraits on mummies are indeed depictions of the people buried inside, and supports the theory that the portraits were painted after death. After all, a child that young would not have had a portrait ready to go, and the resemblance is uncanny.
So it seems that at some point before the embalming and wrapping process, an artist would have sketched and painted a portrait of this child – and it took a modern day digital reconstruction artist and a CT scan to piece this together.